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Marlboro producer places $1.8 billion bet on marijuana

MIAMI - JUNE 22: Marlboro cigarettes with the new labeling system are seen at the Quick Stop store on June 22, 2010 in Miami, Florida. Today the Food and Drug Administration law banning the use of terms "light," "mild" and "low" tar goes into affect in the marketing and sale of cigarettes. The new boxes have replaced those terms with lighter-colored packaging for light brands and switched to terms such as "gold" and "silver" to replace "light" and "ultra-light". (Photo illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — One of the world’s biggest tobacco companies is diving into the cannabis market with a $1.8 billion buy-in.

Marlboro maker Altria Group Inc. is taking a 45 percent stake in Cronos Group, the Canadian medical and recreational marijuana provider said Friday.

The agreement includes a warrant to acquire additional shares over the next four years that could give the Altria, which is based in Richmond, Virginia, a 55 percent ownership stake in the Toronto company.

That would mean Altria’s investment would be in the same league as the $4 billion spent earlier this year by Constellation Brands to acquire shares of Canopy Growth Corp., another Canadian pot producer.

The August investment by Constellation, which makes Corona and other beverages, was the largest to date by a major U.S. corporation in the cannabis market.

Whatever hesitation larger corporations in the U.S. had about entering the cannabis market appears to be fading if there is a financial justification.

Altria’s huge investment lit up shares of cannabis companies that have begun to set up shop in Canada, where recreational use was legalized this year.

U.S. traded shares of of Cronos Group Inc. jumped 22 percent Friday.

Rapid growth in the cannabis market is expected to continue as legalization expands in the U.S. and social norms change. On Tuesday, ultra-conservative Utah became the latest state to legalize marijuana use for medical purposes.

Consumers are expected to spend $57 billion per year worldwide on legal cannabis by 2027, according to Arcview Market Research, a cannabis-focused investment firm. In North America, that spending is expected to grow from $9.2 billion in 2017 to $47.3 billion in 2027.